BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
Everyone knew that Fr. Joe Mills, who passed away on April 4, 2020 at age 92, loved being a priest.
And not only that, but he was also known for loving and supporting his fellow priests, said Fr. J. Patrick Reynolds, vicar general for the Diocese of Owensboro, who gave the homily at Fr. Mills’ April 8, 2020 funeral Mass at St. Stephen Cathedral.
“The elderly ones respected him, and the young ones knew he was always in their corner,” said Fr. Reynolds. “He encouraged our diocesan seminarians through the years, especially in his many years as chaplain for the Serra Club, which promotes vocations and prays for our seminarians.”
Fr. Mills always wanted to have people “gathered around him, in prayer, work, study and recreation,” said Fr. Reynolds, commenting on the sad irony that the funeral Mass that morning was a private liturgy, due to public Masses in the diocese being suspended to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The Mass was livestreamed on the cathedral’s Facebook page, garnering more than 200 live views as the liturgy was celebrated. And as of April 20, the video recording saved to Facebook had reached 5,100 views.
A public memorial Mass will be held at a later date, to be determined.
Fr. Reynolds called Fr. Mills a “mentor and a role model to me, and to many others,” and said there was “no greater cheerleader in this diocese for the priesthood than Joe Mills – ever.”
“He reminded us that we all struggle for holiness, but that we help each other to attain that in this pilgrimage of life through mutual encouragement and prayer,” said Fr. Reynolds, praising Fr. Mills’ “understanding and gentleness” in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“Fr. Joe Mills was not only a good priest; he was, indeed, a priests’ priest,” said Fr. Reynolds.
Joseph M. Mills was born on Sept. 6, 1927. He attended St. Francis Academy for nine years, prior to entering the minor seminary at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana in 1942, where he studied for four years.
The future Fr. Mills continued his studies at
the Theological College at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., until his ordination by Bishop Francis R. Cotton at St. Stephen Cathedral on May 26, 1953. He served as assistant pastor at St. Agnes Parish, Uniontown, and was then sent to Rome to pursue studies in canon law. Returning to Owensboro in 1961, Bishop Henry J. Soenneker assigned Fr. Mills to Brescia College in Owensboro where he taught theology for 12 years. In 1973 he was transferred to Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green, where he served as pastor for nine years.
Following his pastorate at Precious Blood Parish, Bishop John J. McRaith appointed Fr. Mills the judicial vicar of the Diocese of Owensboro’s tribunal in 1983 and also assigned him to St. Anthony Parish, Browns Valley, as pastor. In 1989, he became pastor of St. Martin Parish, Rome.
After 11 years, Fr. Mills became chaplain to the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph in Maple Mount. Upon his retirement on Jan. 1, 2004, Fr. Mills continued to minister to the sisters at the Mount.
Fr. Mike Clark, pastor of Blessed Mother Parish in Owensboro, served for many years in the ministry of the tribunal with Fr. Mills. Fr. Clark had gotten to know Fr. Mills when he entered the seminary in 1989, and said the older priest profoundly impacted him.
Fr. Clark said Fr. Mills emphasized the importance of fellowship and priestly fraternity – including a memorable trip during which several of the older priests took some of the newest priests to Rough River. (Fr. Mills even took a turn on someone’s Jet Ski.)
Fr. Clark commended Fr. Mills’ way of mentoring young priests – that “your education doesn’t end when you get ordained” – and throughout his priesthood trying to have a “reading day” in addition to his day off. (On his reading day, Fr. Mills would celebrate Mass as usual, but also created time for scriptural and canonical reading.)
In 1992, Bishop McRaith appointed Fr. Mills vicar general, a post he held for nine years.
Elaine Thomas, the administrative assistant in the diocese’s Office of Administration, got to know Fr. Mills from her years as his secretary while he was the vicar general.
In working with him, it was clear that Fr. Mills respected and cared about both the priests and laypeople he encountered.
Thomas said most of her conversations with Fr. Mills were “lighthearted,” but one day, she said to him, “‘when or if I get to Heaven, I am going to have so many questions.’ Fr. Mills said, ‘When you get to Heaven you won’t have any questions; they will all be answered.’”
Thomas, who would frequently visit Fr. Mills during the last years of his life while he resided at the Carmel Home in Owensboro, said that not only did Fr. Mills always have an answer, but “he always had the right answer.”
That Fr. Mills was deeply devoted to vocations awareness was apparent to all, said Tom Lilly, the diocese’s chancellor.
Lilly came to know Fr. Mills from his time in an earlier role, 15 years prior, when Lilly served as the diocese’s director of stewardship.
“I don’t know anyone I’ve ever met who was better at living out his love for God and humanity,” said Lilly. “Fr. Joe loved talking faith and theology, and loved his vocation.”
Lilly said Fr. Mills told him “What a great life it is being a priest. It’s a life filled with so many blessings and graces. I don’t think people know how great it is, or we wouldn’t have a shortage.”
Corey Bruns, a seminarian for the Diocese of Owensboro, called Fr. Mills a “champion” for priests and seminarians.
“Two years ago, Bishop Medley celebrated the Jubilarian Mass at the Carmel Home, during which we gave thanks for Fr. Joe’s then-65 years of priestly ministry,” said Bruns. “As I greeted Fr. Joe and helped him vest for Mass, he grasped my hand, smiled and said: ‘Corey, being a priest is the best gift, God could have ever given me. To be his hands and feet… wow. For this long too! I can’t wait until you get to join me!’”
Bruns said Fr. Mills’ love of his vocation “was evident by the way in which he lived it,” adding that Fr. Mills continues to live in his memory and prayers as a priest who “desired nothing more than to bring God to the people and the people back to God.”
Ernie Taliaferro, who retired as Certified Financial Officer for the diocese in 2017, said Fr. Mills served as the “faithful and supportive” chaplain of the Serra Club of Owensboro for 28 years.
“Fr. Mills’ official retirement at age 75 was in 2002 but he remained active as our chaplain until 2010,” said Taliaferro, himself a Serra member.
Taliaferro and his wife, Shirley, both had Fr. Mills as a professor at Brescia College “and he always made us feel as special friends, and all the while we jokingly bragged that his Christian Marriage college class must have been the major reason for our successful marriage,” said Taliaferro.
“He would grin but he was far too humble to ever take any credit and then compliment us on such an achievement,” said Taliaferro, adding that he honestly cannot remember or imagine a “more devout or holier priest in this diocese than Fr. Mills.”
Robert Slack who with his wife, Margie, was a longtime friend of Fr. Mills and a Serra Club member, said he first joined the Serra Club in 1982, the same year that Fr. Mills became the club’s chaplain.
Slack recalled a significant milestone in Fr. Mills’ Serra Club legacy. In 1985, Slack was president of the Owensboro club and the official delegate to the International Serra Convention in Milwaukee. As president, Slack was authorized to vote on measures of import – and that year Serra International was voting whether to admit women to the organization.
Slack said the vote in those days was “controversial,” but he voted to admit women membership, taking inspiration from Fr. Mills who “supported the role of women in the Church.”
“It passed by a small majority and as a result Serra Club has been blessed by its many women members,” said Slack.
Sr. Vivian Bowles, OSU, agreed that Fr. Mills was committed to women’s roles in the Church.
Sr. Bowles met Fr. Mills in the early 1960s when the two were serving at St. Pius X Parish in Owensboro, and Sr. Bowles was preparing to make her final vows as an Ursuline.
As she taught full-time and also took his evening theology class at Brescia College, “Fr. Joe was so helpful and understanding and followed my vocation experience thereafter.”
Sr. Bowles said when Bishop McRaith was appointed to the diocese in 1982, one of his first actions was establishing a tribunal, appointing Fr. Mills as the judicial vicar and telling him to select a staff.
“Fr. Joe came to see me asking if I would serve with him using my expertise as a marriage and family therapist,” said Sr. Bowles. “I didn’t know women could even be on the tribunal but we decided he would submit my name and see what the bishop thought. Within a week, Fr. Joe had a small but great team and was determined we would all be trained in tribunal work.”
Sr. Bowles said that beyond their training, Fr. Mills wanted his tribunal to be a “collegial team happily working together,” and that through his efforts the tribunal became “efficient and joyful.”
Mary Ann Kurz, who retired from her role as a notary in the tribunal in 2019, described Fr. Mills as “very dedicated” to his priesthood.
“He had a deep faith and prayer life,” she said. “He was a joy to work with – always upbeat with a smile on his face and ready to help anyone, whatever their needs… It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of his staff.”
Sandy Morris, an instructor/notary in the tribunal, said she always looked forward to the days that Fr. Mills was working in the office.
“Working with us was something he continued to do long past his retirement, sharing his wisdom and years of experience,” said Morris. “He was truly sincere in his efforts to help the people of God rectify their past and to be able to return to the sacraments.”
Louanne Payne, director of the diocese’s tribunal, said that as she reflected on the past 20 years of ministering with Fr. Mills, three words came to mind: “love, positivity, and encouragement.”
“He was so proud of and in love with his priesthood and modeled Jesus’ love to everyone with whom he came into contact,” said Payne. “Anytime I saw Fr. Joe, I always walked away feeling loved – and there is no greater gift.”
Payne said her life has been “truly been blessed by Fr. Joe sharing his gifts with me, and for that I will always be thankful.”
Besides his multiple years as a pastor, Fr. Mills served on the priests’ council, the priest personnel committee, and the diocesan review board. He worked with Cursillo, the charismatic renewal, RENEW, Marriage Encounter, and Jesus Caritas. He was a member of the Board of Overseers at St. Meinrad, as well as a board member of the Alumni Association at St. Meinrad. He was a member of the Brescia University Board of Trustees, an Ursuline Associate, and a Passionist Oblate (one of his sisters was a Passionist nun).
Fr. Mills was a member of the Canon Law Society of America since he assumed the role of judicial vicar. Besides his seminary training, and his studies in Rome, Fr. Mills attended Loyola University, and did a sabbatical at Notre Dame University.
He was preceded in death by his siblings Randall; Kay; Sr. Miriam Ann, CP; and Mollie. He is survived by his brothers Jack and Bill, as well as several nieces and nephews, and great-nieces and great-nephews.
Fr. Mills was laid to rest at Resurrection Cemetery, Owensboro. Expressions of sympathy in memory of Fr. Mills may be made to the Retired Priests Fund, 600 Locust St. Owensboro, KY, 42301.
Originally printed in the May 2020 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic